Monday, March 30, 2015

Palm Sunday Sermon, March 29: The Unexpected God

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
You’d think that the longer I’m a Christian, the less surprised I would be by Jesus, but it just keeps happening. You know, you come to faith and you start reading the Bible and you expect a clear picture of who Jesus is, all majestic, riding a stunning white horse with hair flowing behind him or whatever, but that’s not what you get. What you get is Jesus on a donkey. What you get is a Jesus who runs away from home, who gets angry, who says things that don’t match our preconceived notions of who he is. What we get is a God who shows up in the most unexpected places.
And so I got to thinking this week about the unexpected ways I’ve seen God at work, the unexpected people God uses to accomplish God’s purposes. I was just reading an article about the young actor who plays Brick Heck on the show, “The Middle.” Have you seen this show? Brick is a weird character—he reads incessantly, is scared of bridges, and generally just incredibly awkward. And the interview with the actor was about his faith, about how he is a churchgoing Christian in Hollywood, and I have to tell you, with apologies to the youth among us, I didn’t expect to find myself moved by an interview with a kid who has made a name playing a quirky character, but here he is, witnessing to his faith, an unexpected blessing from an unexpected person.
Or I think about someone like Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador, the champion of the poor, who was assassinated 35 years ago this week. You might expect an archbishop to be used by God, but Romero started his career standing against those in the church who said that Christians ought to work for the well-being of the poor, saying there were other more important issues for the faithful to deal with. It wasn’t until a friend who had worked with the poor was, himself, assassinated that Romero said, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I, too, must walk the same path.” And he did, spending his final years advocating for those closest to God’s heart, in the face of intimidation from the ruling junta. And it wasn’t twenty-four hours after he preached a sermon encouraging soldiers to stop violating the basic human rights of El Salvador’s poor that he was murdered, right in the middle of church, as he stood behind the altar. And his death galvanized the whole country. Oscar Romero started his career opposing reforms that would help El Salvador’s poor, and yet God used him anyway.
Of course, these might be unexpected people in some ways, unexpected vessels for the work of God, but even then, I’m not a celebrity. I’m not even an Archbishop. I’m just a guy with a car note and a job and a family to support. I hear these stories, see these great things people do, and I’m liable to just sort of crumple, to say, why bother. What could God possibly do with me?
Have you wondered that? Have you wondered what God could possibly do with you, with your limitations, with your baggage, with your pain? I think it is a pretty common question for those of us who live in the real world, who come up against real problems that make us feel real small.
And it’s why I love the story that Hannah read this morning. Yes, the triumphal entry is nice, yes, the parade is nice, and the laying of cloaks and all the rest. But you know what has my attention? The donkey. The donkey! It’s what Jesus rides when he is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s on his way there with his disciples and he tells two of them to go to the village ahead of them where they will find a donkey who has never been ridden, tied up just inside the city. And this is what they do.
Now, what really kills me about this story is that Jesus tells them that if anyone asks why they are stealing a donkey that doesn’t belong to them, they are to say, “the Lord needs it,” as if the excuse of “God told me to do it” has ever worked in the history of the world.
Yet, this time, it works. They go to this unlikely city and find this unlikely donkey and offer this unlikely excuse, and it works. The bystanders allow them to take the donkey.
They bring it to Jesus, and they throw their cloaks on it to make it at least a little more comfortable, and so it was that the savior of the world climbed on a donkey and rode it into Jerusalem as throng of people threw their coats on the ground and waved branches and shouted ““Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Now, it wasn’t totally out of the ordinary for somebody to ride a donkey in a parade. It wasn’t common, but it was a symbol. When a king wanted to enter a new place in the name of war, he’d ride a horse. But if he wanted to send the signal that he came in the name of peace, he’d ride a donkey. The symbol in and of itself wasn’t too strange. But what was strange was that by every discernable measure, what the people needed wasn’t peace, but war. We read the Bible in the context of our contemporary democracy, but that wasn’t what Jesus and his contemporaries experienced, of course. We forget that the story of Jesus takes place in occupied territory, with oppressed people in horrible conditions. The Romans were dominating the local Jewish people, and so what makes the donkey thing so weird is the idea that peace could solve the problem, as if one guy on a donkey could save the world.
Why, it’s so crazy that it just might work.
That’s not to say that the business of saving the world is all peaches and cream. This was not a parade that would end in triumph. The people were fickle. They may have shouted Hosanna on Sunday, but by Friday, they were shouting “Crucify him. Crucify him.”
Perhaps it is the most unexpected part of this whole story that what we are dealing with is a parade leading to a crucifixion. Sunday’s palms lead to Friday’s thorns.
It’s like Romeo and Juliet in a way. You know, the whole story points to a happy ending, not that it’s easy, but it points in the direction that everything’s going to work out, and Juliet drinks a potion to fake her own death so that they can be together, but Romeo thinks she’s died and so he drinks poison, and when she wakes up from her slumber to see that he has died, she stabs herself with a dagger. Here you think, oh, a love story, how wonderful, and this is what you get.
Or you may remember the news story a few months back of a family who were on their way to Disney World, driving all the way from Texas, when the teenage son fell asleep at the wheel and, all of a sudden, a celebration turns into tragedy. It’s the last thing you expect, and yet there it is.
I don’t mean to suggest that the story of Jesus is all tragedy. We know how it ends, and it has a happy ending, a powerful ending, but I just can’t get past the fact that an integral part of the story of God is that he dies, that he is executed like a common criminal. It seems so normal to those of us for whom this is not our first Palm Sunday, who have heard this story again and again. But in our familiarity with this story, we have to remember, there is perhaps no twist ending, no surprise in all of literature as profound as this one, that as Jesus was waved into the city as a hero, as a king, he was really on the road to his death. Here we have the son of Man, the one we hope to be the savior of the world, and he doesn’t even save himself.
It is the last thing you would expect, that the almighty God would know what it is like to walk towards his own execution, to suffer, to die, but then, this is the kind of thing God does. God suffers and dies so that we might know that when we suffer, even when we die, God is with us. It shows us the depths of God’s love. It is unexpected, but it is so needed.
This is how God works. Not just the crucifixion, not just on Good Friday and Easter, but all the time. God shows up in the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected people: the kind of people we might write off as obnoxious, or strange, or not worth our time. I remember about a year ago we had a guy come in off the street clearly dealing with some sort of psychosis, and in those situations you don’t really know what you’re dealing with so you want to be careful, so I shut the door to the church office and sat with him in the welcome center, and he didn’t need food, he didn’t want financial assistance, he just wanted to play the piano for a little while. I was busy so I felt completely inconvenienced by this, but I figured it couldn’t hurt much, so I went and got my computer out of my office and sat down within earshot so that I could try and get some work done while he sat in the fellowship hall and played the piano.
And it’s not like he was Mozart or anything. Clearly, if he’d had lessons, they’d been twenty years prior. Some of what he played didn’t make any sense. But I want you to know that I sat out there for a full hour listening to him, and it was strangely beautiful. It fed me on a day I didn’t even realize I was hungry. This is how God works. Not just the crucifixion, not just on Good Friday and Easter, but all the time.
I’ll tell you one of the most profound examples I’ve seen of this kind of recently. I’ve been following the Kelly Gissendaner case pretty closely. She’s the woman who was scheduled to be executed late last month down in Jackson, Georgia for encouraging her boyfriend to kill her husband, nearly twenty years ago. Never mind that the guy she paid, who actually committed the murder, was given life in prison instead of being put on death row. You should know that while I know we don’t all agree about this, I feel very strongly, and this is a position rooted deeply in my faith, that the death penalty ought to be abolished in all instances, but even then, this case is different. Kelly Gissendaner had been through a program through my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology, that offered certificates in advanced theological studies to inmates. It’s pretty much a seminary-level deal, and through those studies, Kelly Gissendaner got to a place where she decided to reorient her life around the teachings of Jesus, she asked for forgiveness, and she became a source of strength for other inmates, who started calling her Mama Kelly because of the way she cared for them. None of this undoes the evil act of conspiring in her husband’s murder, but it does, in my mind, matter. If we are talking about the God who shows up in unexpected places and unexpected people, I don’t know of many more unexpected people than inmates on death row waiting to die.
Now, you may remember that there was a lot of activity around this case. I know a lot of people who knew her personally, so I heard a lot about it, and, in fact, our pastoral residents here at the church were involved in some of the demonstrations and vigils that took place in those days. We prayed that the payroll board would grant her clemency, which they did not. We prayed that the Governor would ask the board to reconsider, which he did not. I don’t usually find myself wrapped up in these kinds of cases, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind, this unexpected vessel of God in the most unexpected of places. I joined many others in praying for a miracle, for any miracle, and as the hour of her scheduled execution passed, as I was ready to give up praying, the strangest thing happened. Word started to trickle out that she was still alive, that she hadn’t yet been executed. Come to find out that as she and her legal team waited to hear if the Supreme Court would step in, the pharmacist had discovered a problem with the pentobarbital solution they were going to inject her with.
You can’t buy this stuff off the shelf, as all the drug companies in the United States have stopped making it, because they have no interest in being involved in killing people. So states have to hire specialty pharmacies to mix it up, and on this day, in this case, the pentobarbital appeared cloudy. They couldn’t use it. They’d have to postpone the execution, indefinitely.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened that night, the cloudy lethal injection, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, as we wave palm branches at what is functionally a parade that will lead to an execution. It doesn’t always happen like this, so when it does, you sit up and take notice. One of my seminary classmates who was at the vigil outside of the prison that night said, I think pretty profoundly, “We know that one of the images in the Bible for the Holy Spirit is a cloud. It was as though the Holy Spirit showed up as a cloud in that drug.”

Talk about God showing up in unexpected places! In this season that moves so quickly from celebration to execution that it can make your head spin, this is important to remember. God can show up in what seems like the most unexpected, the most hopeless of circumstances. In fact, as we prepare for Easter, I can’t think of a more important message than that, because while it is true that we are marching towards the horrible events of Good Friday, it is likewise true that the journey does not end there, for in the kingdom of God, we find majesty in a donkey, salvation in an execution, life in a tomb. Perhaps this is cause for celebration, after all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, March 23, 2015

March 22 Sermon

Psalm 51
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
As a professional religious person, I have the opportunity to be in conversation with all kinds of people, and I'm not just talking church people. I didn't really grow up in church so this dynamic is a pretty new one for me, but it is amazing what people who have never darkened the door of a church will share with a member of the clergy. And I will tell you, it is a high honor to be the steward of those stories. But it's still a little weird.
In fact, I’ve shared with some of you that my wife Stacey and I have a game we play at cocktail parties when we want to find a way to exit a particularly dull conversation. We'll ask the person we're talking to what they do for a living, and they'll tell us and then inevitably ask us we do for a living. When I tell them I am a United Methodist pastor, they'll do one of two things. Either they will start sharing things that nobody ought to share with a stranger in a public place, because they feel so bad about things they’ve done, or they’ll let out this sort of guttural groan and walk away slowly, as if they feel like they’re about to be judged and they just can’t handle it.
And so it is that I have come to discover something pretty profound about modern people. I think it's profound anyway. And it has to do with sin. Sin, of course, is a theological concept, which makes it complicated, but in a few words, it is the stuff that separates us from God. To be human is to have sin. Sin is what happens when we don't do the loving thing, when we break God's law, when we turn against God and God’s people.
What I have discovered about sin is this. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of people, and I can just about pick them out based on their response to learning I’m a pastor at a party. There are people who are so overwhelmed with their sin that they don't know what to do, who realize that they are sinful and get so stuck on that fact that they spend their lives being miserable, feeling like they are never good enough, like they are fundamentally flawed, sort of Eeyore sometimes. That's the first kind of person.
The second kind of person says, maybe I sin, but it doesn't really matter. It's really not that bad. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not like I’m committing genocide or anything, and God’s going to forgive me so why worry? In fact, I'm pretty great. I'm smart, I'm good at what I do, and I'm right about more things than I’m wrong about. If I do sin, it's just little piddly stuff, because I'm too great a person to sin very much. It’s the kind of Homer Simpson character who says, eh, I’ll just confess on my deathbed and everything will work out all right.
Those are the two kinds of people. People who get bogged down in sin and people who ignore it. They may be caricatures, but there's truth there. And what's fascinating about this is that it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between these kinds of people, because they act out in similar ways. I should say, we act out in similar ways, because we all have sin. Those of us who get bogged down in sin act out in unhealthy ways because there’s no hope in that kind of focus. There’s no positive anything. We get stuck. And when you’re stuck, you wallow, and you don’t end up doing the loving thing. You can get focused on yourself instead of focusing on all of God’s children, which is, of course, where our focus ought to be.
But those of us who don’t really pay attention to sin, who kind of write it off, we act out in the same ways! We start thinking we’re great, and so we focus on ourselves, and again, we forget everyone else. This is the cyclical nature of sin. Sin begets sin.
And don’t be surprised if you find yourself today somewhere between those two poles. I will tell you that there are two people sitting in your seat today. There is the person who gets bogged down in sin and brokenness, and there is the person who does not pay it any mind. It is part of the human condition that each of us vacillates between these two poles. Each of us.
This is part of what it means to be human, to have sin, to bounce around between being overwhelmed by it and ignoring it. And it’s what makes sin so complicated, so hard to pin down, because one day we’re stuck and we think we’re terrible, and the next day, we think we’re the best thing since sliced bread. Neither is true! But sin is real. And when we don’t pay it attention, when we don’t talk about what it is, how it functions and how it separates us from God, we don’t engage sin as it actually is, and as the Bible tells us about it, we can get into real trouble. We’re liable to think of ourselves as simultaneously too broken for redemption and too put together to bother to care.
And that works until it doesn’t. It works until it doesn’t. It’ll pull you in two different directions until you are split in two. I’ll tell you, this is the very position that the writer of the Psalm finds himself in. This feeling that I thought I had it figured out and yet, somehow, everything is falling apart around me. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like you’d hit rock bottom only to discover that you’ve landed on a false floor? I think we all have moments like that. And it’s miserable. It is. But for everything else, it is a reminder that we cannot do this on our own. We are not built to be self-sustaining. We are built to be held up by God and by others.
It takes being at that point, I think, to pray the kind of prayer that the writer of Psalm 51 writes. He says,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
These are not words of someone who’s feeling great about himself. In fact, this is what the Psalms are. They are some of the most human writings in the whole Bible, because they express things like hopelessness, anger at God, frustration, thanksgiving, confusion. Are these things you’ve felt? And in this psalm, the writer has reached that point, where he realizes that he can’t do it alone. He’s not capable of doing it alone, because he has sin.
And in this psalm, sin isn’t just about having God tell you not to do something and then doing it. It isn’t just about eating from that one tree that God says not to eat from. It’s not about God testing at all. It’s about being born with it, being born with the inability to do it all on your own. It’s being born with the need for God but the predilection to ignore that need. It’s not to say we’re fundamentally terrible. It’s to say we’re fundamentally in need of God’s grace, fundamentally in need of being washed in the waters of grace.
This image of being washed is so important, because you do need to respond to the reality of your sin, but not by being demoralized by it. The psalm ends this way: “restore me to the joy of your salvation, and sustain me in a willing spirit.” You don’t respond to God’s love by wallowing in your sin, by saying, oh, I’m so terrible, and moping around the house. You respond to God’s love by acknowledging your sin, asking for forgiveness, and being joyful. This isn’t the kind of false joy that we think would come if we were able to do whatever we want. I think many of us carry within us the idea that if we could just do everything we wanted, if we were in charge, we’d find joy in it. But that’s a fantasy, because it presumes that I know best, that all of my ideas are the best ideas
The joy of salvation is completely different. It’s really the opposite of being in charge, because it comes from the realization that we can’t do it on our own but that we don’t have to, because we have a God who loves us too much to let us go, who will sustain us in a willing spirit so that even though we sin, even though we don’t have it together, we can move towards repentance. We can be made more perfect in love. This forgiveness is not about no longer acknowledging sin at all. It is about taking seriously the reality of sin in our lives and working, with God’s help to move past being bound by it and move toward fuller relationship with Jesus Christ, the God who declares that we are his Children.
In fact, this is what the prophet Jeremiah is talking about when he talks about the new covenant. God has made an agreement with us, and yes, we break it again and again, despite our best intentions and sometimes, our worst. But the new covenant is stronger than our own foolishness. It is so strong, Jeremiah says, that if we will take it seriously we will grow into people who do not even have to say, “know the Lord” because it is a covenant which carries within it the power to change hearts and minds. It is a covenant that is so strong that if we will just take it seriously, we’d put all the preachers in the world out of business, including the ones who apparently need $65 million dollar airplanes, and while I guess I would have to find something else to do, I’d be ok with it, because the love that comes from that kind of devotion is powerful. This isn’t to say that this kind of love makes our sin disappear. It certainly does not. But it is to say that we have the power to grow, the power to move closer towards the heart of God, so that we may experience God’s grace in a way that isn’t simply about grace merely washing over our sin, but in a way that becomes about grace washing over our lives.
This new covenant, in our understanding, is made manifest in Jesus. It is seen in his birth, in his life and teachings, and most visibly, in his death. You have heard, I am sure, that “Jesus died for our sins,” and this is true, but it does not mean, as some have said, that somehow God demanded a sacrifice because he is angry at is and was willing to accept the blood of his own son in order to be satisfied. That’s cruel, and it isn’t who God is. The idea that Jesus died for our sins is that he fulfilled the new covenant, that he suffered as we suffer, that he died as we will die, so that he understands the things we go through, but that because of his great work and love for humanity, death was not the final word.
This, this is the new covenant: whether you are feeling like Eeyore or Homer Simpson today, sin does not rule. Death is not the final word. If you are here today wallowing in your sin, hear this important message: in the name of Jesus Christ, you, even you, are forgiven. Nothing you have ever done, nothing you could ever do, is beyond the potential for forgiveness. Nothing. For you are God’s beloved child.
And if you are here today thinking your sin doesn’t matter, hear this message: yes, you are forgiven, but it is in the name of Jesus Christ. It is not that you are forgiven because God doesn’t care. Neither does your forgiveness give you license to eat, drink, and be merry at the expense of noticing the suffering of the world. You are forgiven, in the name of Jesus Christ, because Christ has suffered and died, because Christ defeated death. Your forgiveness comes at a cost, and every time you ignore that call to try to be better, to try to sin less, to move deeper into the heart of God, every time you ignore that call, you cheapen that gift.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. You are forgiven in the name of Jesus Christ. Each of us vascillates between the two poles, but neither pole is sufficient, for the true answer is not found here, or here, but here, for we are promised in scripture that I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

This does not mean sin disappears. It just means that God loves us more than we can ever imagine. It is by this love, by this grace, that we are able to make the promise, in our baptismal vows, to remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world. Let us share this great love in appropriate ways. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 16, 2015

March 15 Sermon: "God So Loved"

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

John 3:14-21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
So, today’s scripture probably includes the most famous verse in any scripture of any religious tradition, of all time. If you know it, you probably know the King James version: For God so Loved the World that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believed in him shall not perish but gain eternal life. We see it on bumper stickers, we see it on jewelry, and it seems like there’s always some super excited guy in the background on College Gameday waving it around on a poster.
And it’s a great verse. It’s a verse about hope, and love, and grace. It’s a verse that, in many ways, sums up our faith. You know, if you asked me what does it mean to be a Christian, I might say that it means that we believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. And that’s good . . . but it’s not as easy as we make it. Those of us who have been hearing this verse for a long time probably feel like it’s familiar at this point, and so it’s comfortable, but it’s not as easy as it seems, because it takes away my ability to decide who is loved and who is not. It takes away my ability to decide who gets in and who doesn’t, and man, I don’t like losing that ability, because it very well might mean that I am not in charge.
So often, we make this verse about me, about my life and my faith and nothing else, as if what John really meant to say was “For God so loved Dalton that he gave his only begotten son.” We do that at the expense of everything and everybody else, and certainly at the expense of the context of the verse. That’s why I like that this morning’s Gospel lesson is about more than just this one verse. It’s a passage not just about you, not just about me, but about Jesus, about why Jesus was sent to earth, why we had the experience of a savior. And as we continue in Lent and prepare for Easter, I think it’s a useful thing to think about, just why it is that Jesus broke through the veil of humanity and shared himself with us.
And the reason is this. God so loved the world. God so loved the world. The whole world. I mean, can you imagine, worshiping a God like that? We can get behind the idea that God loves the church, or that God loves me, but this isn’t what it says. It says God loves the world. In fact, God so loves the world that God sent God’s son Jesus to earth: not just for you, but for everyone.
I mean, this may sound weird to people who have heard about this stuff their whole lives, but this is pretty scandalous. It’s pretty scandalous to think about the ways God loves the whole world. Not just you, not just me, but the orphaned kid in China. The hungry woman in Mozambique. And, I suppose, it’s ok to us that God loves these people. If you’ve been around folks who are suffering, you start to understand the power that this kind of love can offer. But what about Bernie Madoff? How do you feel about the fact that God loves Bernie Madoff? What about ISIS? The passage goes on to say that God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but to save it. To be honest, most days I want to condemn the whole thing and hole myself up and ignore everything but my little bubble.
I mean, you start thinking about it, and the business about God so loving the world is pretty powerful. It’s pretty incredible. It’s pretty scandalous, because God’s grace does not work like we want it to. Notice that the Gospel of John does not say that God so loved the righteous part of the world, or the Christian part of the world, or the repentant part of the world, or the part of the world we don’t regularly bomb. It says that God so loved, God so loves the whole world.
And it’s scandalous, and it’s a lot, but there’s a word for it. That word is grace. Grace. It’s one of the biggest words I know. It’s what we’re about around here, grace. It means that God loves us even when we don’t deserve it. It means that God forgives us. The Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton says that grace is God’s own life, shared with us. Even before we can call on God’s name, God is there, offering us grace, because God so loves the world.
I think it is telling that in the Sundays of Lent we are talking about baptism here at North Decatur United Methodist Church, about the vows we take at baptism, because I can’t think of many times in which this kind of gracious, all-encompassing love is more evident than during a baptism. I had sort of a crazy week but I got to have two conversations on Wednesday about baptisms we’ll be doing in the coming month or so, and if you or your kids haven’t been baptized, I hope you’ll come talk with me about it. I have to tell you, it’s just one of my favorite things, whether it’s an adult or a child, to experience the grace that happens in baptism, to watch the congregation enfold that person in love and promise to help support and shape the faith of that person, no matter who it is, no matter what he or she has done. It’s a small window into the heart of God, because it is the case that God so loved the world. Not just me, not just us, but the whole world.
When we stand before the church to answer the historic questions that are part of our baptismal liturgy, we confess Jesus as savior and promise to serve him in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races. I mean, that pretty much covers it. I guess I should say that if you fall outside the definition of people of all ages, nations, and races, you should probably leave. Anyone? Anyone? That’s what I thought. It’s pretty conclusive. God takes all comers.
This is how we understand church. It’s how we understand grace. In fact, there’s a term for this. It’s prevenient grace. It’s one of our big things as United Methodists, even if the word prevenient is a little archaic. What it means is “coming before.” Coming before. Some people talk about that moment of decision to follow Jesus as the moment when God gives you grace, and there is grace in that moment, but one of the things we believe as Methodists is that God’s grace comes before you even know who God is. It’s why we baptize infants, because in that moment, God claims the child as one of God’s own, even though the infant isn’t ready to decide. The decision is important, but the scripture doesn’t say, “God so loved the people who decided to love him back.” It says, God so loved the world.
This is hard to explain to some people. When Emmaline was baptized, it took some explaining to my Baptist mother as to why we felt that this was an important thing to do. She was a little scandalized by the whole deal, because in that side of the family, we’re the only Methodists, and our experience and understanding of grace leads us to baptize babies. And I will tell you, there’s even this movement in some corners of the United Methodist church to privilege adult baptism over infant baptism. There are some who say, oh, it is so much more meaningful to wait to be baptized when you are an adult, and I don’t want to put down adult baptisms—we seem to have a number of them around here, and that is wonderful, because it demonstrates a commitment take all that we are and offer it to Jesus—but grace is so powerful that the meaningfulness isn’t in how you feel about it. It is in what God is doing. It is in the act of grace that takes place when the water is placed on your head or you are immersed in the waters of baptism, the moment in which God looks at you and says, this is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
I guess I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but then, maybe, I do. I do want to be clear that the action in baptism is God’s action, not the pastor’s, not the person being baptized. And this mirrors the promise in scripture that God so loved the world, because there are no prerequisites to being loved, no requirements for being invited into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. All you have to do is be human.
In fact, after the verse we put up on posters, the Gospel of John goes on to say this:
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Here’s the thing. I’ve seen it again and again. We have a tendency to read passages like this and assume that when it talks about people of the light, clearly it must mean us, and when it talks about people who love darkness, well, that must be everybody else, but the division is not so clear. I carry within myself a certain glee whenever somebody who I think deserves to fall falls. There’s a reason people watch Entertainment Tonight, and it isn’t to delight in other peoples’ successes. There are times when I watch a celebrity, or a politician, or even a famous pastor who ends up being surrounded by some scandal, and I think to myself, ha! That’s what you get. But the business of belief, of being a part of the church, of being baptized into the family of God is not so that we can suddenly think of ourselves as good in a world of bad. The business of following Jesus is about bearing light in a world of darkness, and there is a fundamental difference!
If we think of ourselves as good in a world of bad, we have a tendency to separate: to say, oh, those people don’t understand God like I do, but friends, if I learn anything from John 3:16, there are no those people in the kingdom of God. There is no one outside the bounds of God’s love.
And this is why I love the metaphor of light. It’s all throughout John’s Gospel. (turn off the lights)
Can you still see? This is how light works. Just a bit illuminates a room. Just a bit.
I will end with this. When I used to work at a camp in Arkansas, we’d take the campers on a side trip to Blanchard Springs Caverns, which was a gorgeous natural cave in the Ozark Mountains. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to tour a cave, but it’s gorgeous, just amazing what a little water can do over millions of years. And it just so happens that caves are some of the only places on earth where you can experience total darkness: no stars, no streetlights, no nothing. They did this thing where they sit you down and turn off the lights and you can put your hand in front of your face and not see it. It’s so surreal that when they do it, you think at first that you can see your hand because it is so rare to experience that kind of darkness. And I probably went on that tour ten times with various groups of kids, and inevitably, some little joker would have a little flashlight in his pocket and would pull it out, and it is amazing what you can see with just the tiniest bit of light. Give your eyes a minute to adjust, and that little bit of light illuminates the whole cavernous thing, the stalactites and the stalagmites, the floor and the ceiling, the pretty parts and the ugly bits.

This is who we are called to be: people who shine light, even when it seems like it’s a fool’s errand. People who take that experience of grace and mirror it to the rest of the world, for in the final analysis, light shines on the just and the unjust alike, for God so loved the world that he sent his only son that everyone, everyone believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, March 9, 2015

March 8 Sermon: "'Everybody Believes in God When Things Are Going Well . . ."

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here).

John 2:13-25
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
Everybody loves God when things are going well. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not much of one. When you get the promotion, or land the perfect parking spot, or find your keys, it’s pretty easy to believe in God. Clearly God loves you and wants the best for you, and you have proof because what once was lost, now is found, and thanks be to God for that.
Of course, anybody who thinks that the faithful Christian life is a life free of all conflict and division and pain clearly has never been to a church council meeting. The theologian Leonard Sweet says that not all fairy tales start with “Once upon a time.” Some of them begin with, “When I became a Christian, all my problems were over.”
I wish that when I was working on getting somebody to come to church, to have faith, I could tell them that if they would just believe, everything will be great, their life will be perfect, they’ll pick the winning lotto numbers every time and nobody they love will ever experience pain, but that’s not how this works. In fact, let me let you in on a little secret. A life lived with God is not easier than a life lived without God. Sometimes we pretend that it is, and I certainly think that the Christian life is richer than one lived without acknowledging God’s grace, God’s love. But the Christian life is not easier than a non-Christian life. There is no connection between your financial success and your belief in God; in fact, you will remember that in last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that it is those who lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel who will be richly blessed. This is not easy stuff.
And yet, I have found it to be the case that it is much easier to believe in God when things are going well, when I feel blessed, when it seems like God is giving me what I want, what I desire, what I think I deserve. It’s only human to make that connection. I mean, when you’re a kid, and you do well in school, you get good grades. When my daughter picks up her toys, she gets a sticker. You do well at work, you get a raise. And it isn’t too far a leap to say that, well, if I am doing well, I must be doing something right, God must be blessing me. That’s a natural response.
I am sure it is what the money changes in the temple thought, at least at first. They were making money, you know, and John doesn’t say in this morning’s Gospel lesson that they were ripping people off, just that they were making money exchanging money, and they were doing it in a way that helped people who came to the temple to make ritual sacrifices, which was how people expressed devotion back then. So here you have a situation where people are offering a service that helped God’s faithful people, and if they made a little money while doing it, you know, it’s no big deal. Everybody’s got to make a living. I’m sure they thought they were doing great, that God was really happy with them, and so it must have been particularly confusing when Jesus came in and turned the whole thing upside down.
We don’t like to think of Jesus this way, you know, getting angry, and what gets me about this story is not just that he walked into the temple, saw people making money and turned their tables over, disrupting their business, but he made a whip of cords to drive them out! My wife Stacey and I were talking last night, she’s a Methodist pastor, too, and she said that if she had been thinking in time she would have made everybody in her congregation a little whip to take home with them as a reminder of the total weirdness of this story. This kind of thing doesn’t match with my understanding of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, and to be honest it feels more like Occupy Wall Street than it does the Church of Jesus Christ. I mean, can you imagine what would happen if Jesus walked in here and turned the tables over? We’d freak out. I know I would. I mean, if Jesus walked in and said everything you are doing is wrong, and I hope it isn’t but if he said it was, what would you do? You’d probably leave and never come back.
This isn’t too far-fetched, you know. The church has a strong history of looking at people who it decides don’t belong in church and saying, “there is no place here for you here,” or, more likely, “you can stay, just don’t say much and certainly don’t try to change anything.”
I’m willing to wager that we’ve all felt like this at one point or another, like we didn’t belong. And I’ll put an even finer point on it and say that we’ve probably looked to God for comfort in a situation only to feel like the tables had been turned over right on top of us. I’m not saying God causes bad things to happen. I’m just saying it’s easier to believe when things are going well.
I’ve told you this before, but the week I moved to Atlanta to start seminary, just as I was getting my apartment settled, I walked out one morning to get in my truck only to discover that I’d forgotten where I parked it, and I spent fifteen minutes combing the parking lot before I realized that it had been stolen over night. And so I called my parents to tell them, and the next day I got out of the shower to see that I had five missed calls from my family, and here I’m thinking they are checking in on me since I was stuck without a vehicle, but the news wasn’t good. Mom was in the ICU. A brain aneurysm. Hurry.
 I’ll tell you, those were dark days for me, as you might expect. It’s not easy to believe in God when all you are trying to do is be faithful, to dedicate your life to following Jesus, and everything around you crumbles like clods of dirt. I’m not saying I lost faith or whatever, that I suddenly became an atheist. Obviously that didn’t happen. But you start to wonder, where is God in all of this? Where is God? I don’t want to get too somber about it, but it is the case that it’s a lot easier to praise God at a wedding than at a funeral for somebody who died of an overdose.
It’s easier to believe when there are signs and wonders, and this isn’t just something we get from experience. It’s in the Bible! This story Hannah read this morning goes on to say that many people believed in Jesus because of the signs and wonders they saw him doing. But Jesus, John writes in his Gospel, would not entrust himself to them. Jesus says to himself, these people see signs and wonders and of course they believe. But this is not enough, because hard times are going to come, and will they believe then? Put another way, everybody believes in God when things are good . . . but what happens when the savior of the world is put on a cross to be executed like a common criminal? What happens when the rent check bounces, when somebody dies, when you get laid off?
It’s a strange passage in the Bible, this idea that people believed in Jesus but that he didn’t trust them, because we hear so much about belief these days that we feel like that’s all the marbles. As long as you believe in God, everything will be ok, and sure, bad things happen, but believe, just make that decision to believe, and you’ll be all right. But what happens when Jesus doesn’t believe in us?
I want you to know, I have a love/hate relationship with this word “believe.” I grew up like many of you, in a religious tradition in which belief was the whole ball of wax. The pertinent question was: “Do you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior,” as if all you had to do was make the intellectual decision to believe, to check that box and say, “sure,” and you were done. And that’s well and good until things start to go wrong, until everything start to fall apart. I mean, does believing in Jesus mean that I’m never allowed to doubt? God, I hope not. I’m not saying you need to be ruled by doubt, twisting in the wind at every turn, but if you don’t occasionally look at the state of the world and wonder just where it is that God is in all of this, you need to pay closer attention.
But here’s the thing about belief. We think of the word “believe” as “deciding something is the case,” as in “I believe that gravity will keep me from floating away” or “I believe that two times two is four.” But the English word believe originally meant to hold something dear. To love.
In fact, the Greek word we translate as believe can also be translated as trust. And maybe I’m making too big a deal out of this—I do that sometimes—but that kind of definition changes the whole game for me. Believing in Jesus is less about deciding that Jesus is the savior and never ever questioning any of the implications of that statement, never wrestling with it. Believing in Jesus is about loving Jesus, about holding dear his promises, about trusting him. And I’m not saying it is easy, but when I’m in the foxholes and everything around me is falling apart, I may struggle with the intellectual decision, but I can still trust in God. I may question the President of the United States, after all, but I trust in the institution of government. I may question a decision the Bishop makes, but I trust in our system of church. Trust is something different altogether, and to be honest, I find it to be a deeper commitment than just deciding something is true, because even if moment to moment I may waver—I am human after all—an intellectual decision runs the risk of getting stuck in my intellect. But trust is about who I am at my core, at the fundamental level of my humanness. Who and what I trust says more about me than almost anything else, because that trust leaks out in the decisions I make, the things I say, the ways I spend my resources and my time.
This trust isn’t created overnight. In fact, it isn’t necessarily created by me at all. The way we learn to trust is by experiencing a reason to trust. When I learned about gravity in school, I learned it as a fact, but now, I trust that I’m not going to float away during this sermon because a lifetime of walking and jumping and falling has led me to trust in gravity. When I learned math, I memorized multiplication tables, but now I trust that two times two is four because I have experienced a lifetime of it still working out.
Of course, trusting in God is more complicated, because while I have obviously bought into this religion thing robe, stole, and sinker, but if you’re looking for an argument against belief, you can certainly find it. I mean, the world is full of death, and pain, and misery. It’s full of joy, too, and wholeness, and love, but to ignore the pain is to pretend it doesn’t exist, and that’s not faithful. Sure, God answers prayer, but are my prayers any better than the prayers of a child who will die of starvation? Of course not. So it is complicated to learn to trust in God, but this is exactly what we do. We learn to trust. We discover that God deserves our trust, and we learn to trust.
And, my God, I don’t know of any better way to learn to trust than to be part of a church. No, we’re not perfect, but we do try to align ourselves with the precepts of Jesus. Yes, we sometimes get cranky with one another, but we do find great meaning in our shared life together. We do try to trust, to love, to care for, to hold dear the promises of God.
In fact, in our baptismal liturgy, when the pastor asks the historic questions before baptism, the third question is this: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” It may sound like the question I was asked as a child, do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, do you check the box of belief, but it is fundamentally different, for the question we ask in our liturgy doesn’t mean you have it all figured out right now, that you’re fully formed and that you promise to never doubt. It means you love. You hold dear. You allow Jesus to turn the tables of the things that get in your way of trusting him, and you live into your calling as a child of God.
Friends, this is not just a matter between you and God. These questions aren’t just about some intellectual decision. When the church is faithful—when it shows love to new people, when it welcomes the stranger, when it feeds the hungry—other people, those who haven’t had the history in the church that some of us have had—other people see that and learn to trust. They learn that God can be trusted, that the church, even though it isn’t perfect, can be trusted.
When I’m having a bad day, or when I start to wonder if this whole church thing is worth it—and the pastor is not immune to occasional bouts of darkness—when my mind wanders to that dark place, the thing that keeps me going is remembering the people who have shown me love, who have shown me such incredible, all-encompassing love that it could not possibly have been inspired without the help of God. What keeps me going is the knowledge that for two thousand years we’ve been at this, preachers and prophets and misfits and thieves, and even in the midst of a world that seems to honor death more than life—certainly more than resurrection—even then, the church has continued to share the unconditional love of God. It’s enough to make a person trust in God even in those dark moments when believing is difficult.
You know, here at North Decatur, we don’t have it all together. When people join the church, I tell them the only promise I can make them about membership here is that if they are here long enough, at some point they’ll be disappointed in the church, disappointed in me. And yet if they leave at that point, they’ll miss the incredible gift of grace, of trust.

How strange, I suppose, that in life’s dark moments, we turn to the church of all places, that imperfect institution which scripture happens to call the Body of Christ. The very body of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, March 2, 2015

March 1 Sermon: Take Up Your Cross

Mark 8:31-38
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Take up your cross and follow me. I don’t know of many verses in scripture that have been so misused, so twisted, until they end up meaning something completely opposite of how they were intended. I’ve talked to women who have remained in abusive relationships because they thought the abuse was their cross. I’ve heard from people of color who were denied promotions and were given justifications that this sort of prejudice was just their cross to bear. That’s nonsense, of course. Jesus is talking about something much deeper, much more significant.
And I got to thinking about the things we carry. That’s the whole thing here, carrying your cross, and I’ll be honest, most days, my hands and pockets are so full I don’t know how I would do it. I mean, literally, I’ve got keys to a house and a car and a church and an office and I don’t even know what half of these things do, and for every key there’s a responsibility there, something that takes up my time. And then of course I’ve got my wallet with all my credit cards and never any cash, and I seem to spend a lot of time with this card in my hand, because there are certainly plenty of financial responsibilities I have to deal with. And then this thing, which I have told you I would like to throw in the road most days, but which takes up time it doesn’t even ask for because even if I’m not fielding a phone call or answering an email that candy isn’t going to crush itself.
And those are just the physical things I carry with me. I also carry my pain, and my past, and my hopes, and my worries, and you understand it’s not just as easy as bending down and picking up the cross. You’ve got to set some stuff down.
This is going to sound silly and so I hope it doesn’t seem too sacrilegious, but what this story in the Gospel of Mark reminds me of is the last week before initiation into my fraternity. I don’t know, maybe since we’re traveling to Holy Week it reminds me a little bit of Hell Week in the fraternity.
And since it was the very end of pledgeship they sort of ramped it up the week before we were initiated as brothers in the fraternity, and it really wasn’t that bad, but one of the things they made us do was carry a brick around with us all week. We painted it yellow, which was the fraternity’s color, and we named them—I named mine the Pater Familius after a line from my favorite movie--and we were instructed to get each of the brothers in the fraternity to sign the brick over the course of the week, but that we were to hold onto the bricks for dear life, because the brothers would be trying to take them.
Listen, it only takes a couple of nights sleeping with a brick under your pillow to have an appreciation for how difficult it is to carry something for a long time. And I really don’t mean to compare this to the cross because it isn’t the same thing. I just want to acknowledge that when you can’t put something down, you’ve got to pay constant attention to it. You constantly have to keep hold of it, make sure not to set it down and misplace it. I mean, I felt the same way after we had our daughter, because for the eight weeks of paternity leave I took, I couldn’t set her down. And it’s lovely, carrying a beautiful kid around, but I mean, you can’t go to the bathroom, you can’t cook, you can’t do much of anything. Carrying something around like that takes your full attention.
And it makes you wonder, you know, how it is that people who have figured out how to be faithful Christians who carry their cross everywhere they go….just how it is that they manage to do that without breaking their backs. You look at somebody like Mother Teresa, who spent her days in the streets and slums of Calcutta, and you wonder, why even try? I’ll never be like that. I don’t have a strong enough back to carry that kind of cross, to live amongst that much misery all day. You look at somebody with that kind of back and you think, I’ll never live up to this verse. I’ll never be able to carry my cross. It’s too heavy. I’m too weak.
But then it must be possible, somehow, or Jesus wouldn’t have said it. And, we’re here aren’t we? I mean, somebody carried the cross forward, carried it through the streets of Jerusalem, the via dolorosa, the way of suffering, and up Calvary’s hill. Somebody must have taken it down after the crucifixion and carried it back down the hill and back through the streets. Somebody must have taken it from there and carried it hither and yon, and at some point somebody brought it up North Decatur Road for a minute as this church was founded! That’s a lot of somebody’s, to get us to this day, and sure, it sounds impossible, to do that kind of heavy lifting, and yet it must be possible, for here we are two thousand years later still talking about it because the cross has been carried from then to now, halfway around the world.
That’s not to say that it’s easy. Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s easy. But it means that it happens, and you may have a list like I do of people who have carried that cross long enough to hand it to you. I mean, you’re here, right? You’re in church, and I know there are lots of other things you could be doing right now. I remember once I was hearing from a woman at another church who was actually on staff, believe it or not, and the conversation turned to Easter, which was coming up, and she said, “I just love Easter,” which, I mean, when you work for a church, it’s sort of like our Super Bowl, so I love it too for all the reasons you might expect, and she went on to say, “I just love Easter, because on that day, there aren’t any lines at Six Flags and you can ride the rides all you want.”
That’s not much of a cross, you know? Riding Goliath fifteen times in a row is not much of a celebration of the Risen Lord. But it’s just to say, I know there are other things you could be doing, so I’m not going to give you a big sermon trying to convince you about the importance of this stuff, because you already get it. You’re here.
But there is a difference between showing up to church, which I acknowledge isn’t easy, and carrying your cross, because when Jesus talks about carrying your cross, he doesn’t say things like, “just make sure you are in the pew at least every other Sunday and that will be good enough.” That’s important—worship is the most important thing we do—but Jesus says things that make me think this is more to it than just being in church. He says things like, “let them deny themselves.” Things like “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for me sake, and for the sake of the Gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
And it sounds like a lot, but we have agreed to try! When we are baptized as Christians in the United Methodist Church, the second question we answer is this one: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Asked another way, we could say, do you agree to take up your cross and follow Jesus?
And maybe that helps. Maybe that helps make sense of it, because taking up your cross isn’t about bearing abuse or resigning yourself to putting up with systems of injustice. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. Taking up your cross means making the conscious decision to do so, to accept the freedom and power—power!—God gives you to be God’s hands and feet in the world and using that power to resist evil, to fight injustice, to work for the rights of the oppressed. I have to tell you, this is why I felt it necessary to put the bit in your bulletin about the death penalty. I don’t pretend to think we’re of one mind about this, and I certainly don’t want to discount the evil actions that lead someone to be sentenced with capital punishment. But to carry your cross is to accept that power to resist injustice and work on behalf of the oppressed, which by definition is an unpopular task. And then I think about King David, and Moses, and the apostle Paul, murderers all of them, and I wonder what would become of these great heroes of the faith if they were alive today.
Listen, when Jesus says that those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save it, that calling in and of itself can sound like a death sentence, or at the very least a particularly unpleasant way of being. But this isn’t what Jesus means at all. I doubt Jesus is calling you to death. It happens—you look at those poor Egyptian Christians martyred for their faith and you remember it happens—but that feels so far removed from my life I’m tempted to write the whole thing off. But that’s a shame, because to lose your life isn’t to die, necessarily. In fact, for you, that’s probably not what Jesus is talking about. But what Jesus is talking about, I think, is recognizing that your life is not your own. There are higher things, deeper things than what makes me happy right this moment, than instant gratification, and to live a live steeped in the Gospel is to live, as the theologian Frederick Buechner says, searching for the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. It is to be intentional about living your call to ministry. Now, maybe you are called to pastor, and if you think that’s how God is pulling you my goodness, let’s talk, but that isn’t exclusively what I am talking about here, because God calls all people to something.
Buechner goes on to say that your job, your profession, may be your calling, but maybe it’s not. And if, for instance, you spend your days writing cigarette advertisements, maybe that’s not your cross. But if you delight in sending time with youth and teaching them about Jesus, or if you delight in working for the welfare of those who do not have enough, perhaps that is your cross. If you love making prayer beads and letting people who need love know that they are loved and remembered in prayer, maybe that’s your cross.
We have this idea that to take up your cross must be a miserable experience, because it certainly was miserable for Jesus, but that’s a lie that keeps us from living into our birthright, our baptism into the family of God.
We think it’s miserable, and that’s why we are so hesitant to do it, but to take up your cross means no more than this: it means asking the question, “what am I giving my life to?” and then further asking, “how does the thing I am giving my life to honor God?” What am I giving my life to? And how does the thing I am giving my life to honor God?

We all are giving our life to something, after all. Everybody’s living in one direction or another. For Jesus, of course, it was the actual cross, it was walking to the cross and dying and then defeating death once and for all. It was showing us a better way to live, a way of love, of justice, of peace. That was the thing he gave his life to, and it quite literally was a gift. But for you, it’s probably something else. It’s probably something else. To take up your cross and follow Jesus means to take the thing you are giving your life to and giving that to God. It is to say, here is who I am and here is what I hold dear, and here is how I will use those gifts and talents and my very being to accept the freedom and responsibility God gives me to resist evil and injustice and oppression in the world. That is your cross. That is how you take up your cross. In some ways, it’s so much easier than carrying a tree up a hill, as Jesus did so long ago. But I won’t lie. In other ways, it’s one of the hardest things I know, for to carry a cross, you’ve got to have your hands free, and boy, that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds. And then you’ve got to take who you are and lay it upon the altar and say, this is my offering. This is how I respond to the gift of grace. This is how I will offer my life to Christ and fulfill my baptismal vows, to resist evil and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves. Thank God we don’t do any of this alone. And thank God that the while the business of carrying your cross is not easy, the journey doesn’t end with the cross, but with the empty tomb, with the resurrected Lord, with the victory of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.